Voices muffled by the offence forces
AS a child I used to lie awake at night writing letters in my head to Enid Blyton, with whom I had an intimate but entirely one- way relationship. I desperately wanted to believe that in Blyton- land I would have been scoffing ginger beer and catching smugglers and jewel thieves with Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog. But in my heart of hearts I knew that was not my place; I would have been one of the comical and- or sinister dark- skinned, foreignlooking strangers who hung around the edge of the story. The Famous Five would have sneered at me, then called the cops. I loved them, but they didn’t love me.
I never sent my letter to Blyton. She had died even before I was born. And I now don’t quite remember what I wanted to say. Probably that it wasn’t fair to leave me out of the fun; that darkskinned, foreign- looking strangers could scoff ginger beer and catch criminals just as efficiently as any upper- middle- class British twit. But I do remember one line quite clearly: ‘‘ Children today know about the world.’’ And this was the crux of my complaint against Blyton: that she was ignorant, that she did not understand a world that included people like me.
I relived my ambivalent childhood relationship with Blyton when I read that a commissioned children’s novel by Australian writer John Dale had been refused publication because it was allegedly offensive to Muslims. Dale is an experienced writer and an associate professor at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney. But after booksellers and librarians said they would not put The Army of the Pure on their bookshelves, Scholastic told Dale they would not publish it.
Although this decision was made in an attempt to defend my religious community, I could not see it as anything but bad news. A significant gap in perception has developed between many Muslims and non- Muslims on the issue of offence. Muslims feel besieged, unable to open a newspaper or turn on the television without finding themselves being variously attacked, patronised, bullied and mocked. Many non- Muslims, on the other hand, feel Muslims have wrested control of other cultures, inhibiting free speech.
This perception arises in part from events such as the response to the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed and the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, but it is also partially due to non- Muslim cultural administrators making pre- emptive decisions about what Muslims would and would not find offensive. A German opera company cancelled a production of Mozart’s Idomeneo because it would have featured the severed heads of Jesus, Buddha and, most
problematically, Mohammed. The performance was reinstated after Muslim religious leaders said they believed it should go ahead.
In Australia, a mocked- up version of Where’s Wally called Where’s Bin Laden was pulled from some shops after staff decided that it ‘‘ wasn’t very tasteful’’. This opinion was not shared by the bookseller at my local Islamic centre, where it was on prominent display.
Dale’s book similarly fell foul of cultural gatekeepers rather than Muslims, but its cancellation adds to fears of Muslim cultural control.
In an act of considerable trust, Dale provided me with a draft of his book for comment. I approached it with no preconceived ideas as to whether I would find it offensive and with mixed feelings about the entire notion of offensiveness.
I don’t believe that books should be refused publication purely on the grounds that Muslims ( or some Muslims) don’t like them. On the other hand, much depends on context, and a children’s novel surely should be judged on criteria different from Christopher Hitchens’s deliberately provocative God is Not Great .
As it turned out, I was not offended by Dale’s book, although I had plenty of comments to make. Its basic premise — Islamic extremists plan a devastating attack on Sydney, intrepid kids save the day — is clearly an imaginative take on present political events and a legitimate area for children’s fiction. There is a good Muslim who names the attack as un- Islamic and a bad non- Muslim bully who is arguably the real villain of the story. In my view, the main shortcoming of the draft I read is not that it features Muslim terrorists but that all the Muslim characters ( including the good Muslim who proves his loyalty to Australia) are represented as foreign.
Their dress is elaborately exotic, their English stilted and mannered. Such exoticism would seem dissonant to the average Australian Muslim child, who may indeed be familiar with exotic clothes and stilted English but also with Muslims who speak with broad Australian accents and dress in jeans and T- shirts.
I dispute Dale’s images of Muslims in fancy dress ( even though I sometimes wear exotic clothes, too), but this is not the same as taking offence. My reality does not match his fiction and, since he seeks to ground his fiction in reality, this is relevant. But, of course, others have their own reality. I can express my reality to Dale, but it is up to him whether to take it on board.
The big question is whose reality finally determines whether the book and others like it are suitable for publication by a respected children’s publisher. While I am comfortable in my own judgment of Dale’s book, I am less sure about how much it should count to anyone else. If decisions are going to be made on the grounds of whether a book or performance is offensive to Muslims, then surely Muslims should be somehow involved in that process.
Yet I have no desire to see Muslim cultural gatekeepers given the task of passing verdict on offensiveness. There is no consensus among Muslims as to what is or is not offensive. I know a couple of Muslims who had a quiet giggle at one of the Danish cartoons ( most of which were notable for their lack of funniness). And Muslims frequently offend each other. I am banned from viewing the main Australian Muslim chat site because of an allegedly ‘‘ disgusting and offensive’’ article I wrote for the Crikey website. I think there is a difference between reasonable and unreasonable offence but, again, I have no idea who should decide what that is.
Nor do I suggest the only people capable of judging offensiveness are the targets of the offence. I often judge a piece of writing to be homophobic or anti- Semitic without waiting for a verdict from gays or Jews. But my confidence in such judgments is not so absolute that I would make decisions based on them without seeking the opinion of those more directly affected. Perhaps, instead of gatekeepers, we should aspire to conversations, as many of them as possible. I still wish I could have sent my letter to Blyton.
There is one question I can answer: would I give The Army of the Pure to my child to read? The answer is yes, I would, and in fact I did. Shakira Hussein is editor of interfaith online magazine Shalom, Pax, Salam. She is writing a PhD on the interaction between Western and Muslim feminism at the Australian National University in Canberra.